ALE members from the Bronx and Upper Manhattan (Credit_ ALE)

In D.C., it’s the Congressional Workers Union

In Albany, it’s New York State Senate employees coming together to form the New York State Legislative Workers United (NYSLWU)

And in New York City, it’s the staff working with New York City Council members who have created the Association of Legislative Employees (ALE).

Legislative workers are speaking out about the drudgery of the work their members have had to put up with; now they’re organizing to form unions. Tasked with helping politicians create legislative proposals, write speeches, and with assisting politicians as they provide services to people in their districts, many legislative staffers say that a job whose profile promotes positive public service, too often leads to their being stuck with low pay, long work hours, and occasionally abusive bosses. 

In D.C., the @dear_white_staffers Instagram account, created in January 2020, was one of the first to lay bare the problems Capitol Hill staffers face. The account has posted anonymous reports by staffers who have complained about discrimination and being bullied by their supervisors. Last month, a Hill staffer wrote to the account to complain about a supervisor who “told me, a Black woman, the only African American person in the office, that my hair, when pulled up tidily with a clip, looks like Amy Winehouse’s hair. I was the only staffer working on Juneteenth.”

The federal labor laws that protect union activism were not designed to protect labor organizing among Hill staffers. Traditionally Capitol Hill staffers have suffered in silence—if anything, the only reflection of their work misery could be seen in the high staff turnover found in the offices of some politicians. But this past February, staffers came together to form the Congressional Workers Union (CWU)—they asked Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) to draft a bill that would grant Capitol Hill staffers the right to unionize and collectively bargain. The bill, H.Res. 1096, passed the House on May 10, 2022 and, after a 60-day probationary period, on July 18 staffers could begin organizing. 

“July 18 will go down as a historic day for congressional staff and our democracy—marking the day our protected rights to organize and bargain collectively go into full effect,” the CWU said in a celebratory statement. “After several months of organizing to establish these protections for House staff, we join 85 congressional workers in taking the next step in our organizing drive by filing for a union election in 8 offices in the U.S. House of Representatives.” 

Contacting staff who want to join the CWU is proceeding with caution so that no Capitol Hill staff members face the retaliations of being fired or blacklisted. The CWU is organizing staff in the offices of eight congressional representatives—all Democrats, all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Staff members in the offices of Representatives Cori Bush (Missouri), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Jesús “Chuy” García (Illinois), Ro Khanna (California), Andy Levin (D-Michigan), Ted Lieu (California), and Melanie Stansbury (New Mexico) have all agreed to hold elections to decide whether or not to unionize. 

In Albany, New York State Senate employees have come together to form the New York State Legislative Workers United (NYSLWU). In announcing their unionizing plans, they sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins: “We are the newly formed New York Legislative Workers United, a collection of staffers in a range of positions representing senate offices across the state. … [W]e write to you today to share our intention to present our union for voluntary recognition, and put our trust that your long history of fighting for the working people of New York will guide your decision making as we take our organizing efforts public.”

Now that they have announced their formation, the organizers are trying to collect union cards from a majority of the 700 staff employees and then will try to become a bargaining unit. They so far plan to ask Stewart-Cousins to voluntarily recognize the union and begin negotiating a contract—rather than force the union to go through the lengthy process of a secret ballot election.

The unionization of New York State Senate employees is in one part a response to the yearly New York State budget negotiations which traditionally become all-night negotiation sessions. Legislative staff are essential to these late-night sessions, but only receive the promise of comp time—which they rarely get to use—instead of extra income payments. 

In New York City, the City Council staff won recognition for their union last Aug. 13 following a 21-month campaign. Now recognized as the Association of Legislative Employees (ALE), they are the nation’s largest legislative staff union and are currently bargaining for a contract. 

Dan Kroop, president of ALE, told the AmNews his union is focused on bringing the labor movement into the social movement and the social movement into the labor movement: “When the Dobbs decision came out, ALE was one of the only unions in New York City to co-sponsor the massive, almost 30,000-person strong rally that went from Washington Square Park to Bryant Park, shutting down most of the city, to say that we defend reproductive justice for every single person who can get pregnant and that we refuse to go back. It’s the same for same-sex marriage, and every issue that touches our membership,” Kroop insists. “We can’t stand idly by and think that they’re ancillary. 

“It’s important to tap into the best traditions of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], of the Civil Rights Movement, of Black Lives Matter, of the Women’s Movement, of the Anti-War Movement and to bring those pieces into our labor movement. It’s only when we act in solidarity and defend all of our members, not just where the workplace ends but outside of the workplace too, that we can make transformational change and truly defend our members.”   

The ALE constitution contains explicit provisions to promote equity throughout the union’s governance, operations, and program strategy and organizers are also proud that, based on a voluntary demographic survey of its membership, it is racially and ethnically diverse. Estimates from the survey found that ALE is 40% white; 27% Hispanic/Latinx; 24% Asian; 16% Black/African American; 4% two or more races; and 1% American Indian/Alaska Native.

Kroop added that ALE is supporting the NYSLWU’s efforts to unionize. “Legislative workers, regardless of what body you’re working in—what chamber you’re working in—our situations are very similar. And that, honestly, is part of the reason why ALE chose to organize independently in 2019 when our card campaign began. We have so many unique circumstances working for politicians…in terms of the schedules, in terms of the sense of urgency to do certain things immediately. And, so, we wanted to build a worker-led, independent union that really put democracy and equity up front.”

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